Debt: It’s the four-letter word that can wreak havoc on your finances. In our Debt Confessions series, real people share how they tackled debt — from credit card bills to student loans to everything in between — and how it felt to reach their zero-balance goals.
Here, a young couple shares how they got serious and paid off nearly six-figures of debt in just a few years.
A great education might lead to a great job, but these days it also often leads to a mountain of student loan debt. For Kayla and Dan Hagen, who met in 2008 while they were in college at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy and married in 2014, Dan’s student loan Everest amounted to a whopping $90,000 after he transferred to Dakota State University to get a Bachelors in Computer Science. As of this month, they’ve paid it all off.
When they first looked at the balance of the student loans, Kayla and Dan, who still live in St. Louis, were overwhelmed. “It’s daunting,” says Kayla. “You see this huge amount of money that you owe and it continues to accrue interest everyday. It felt like a dark cloud just looming over us that was never going to go away.”
“It took us 18 months to pay off the student loans,” says Dan. “It was important for us because we felt this weight on our shoulders. We just wanted to have a clean slate so we could plan our future and not constantly be worrying about the interest that was accruing.”
LIVING OFF ONE INCOME
The first thing that Dan and Kayla, who work as a business analyst and pharmacist respectively, did was try to live off just one of their incomes and use the other to pay down their debt. “I graduated first and Dan graduated 18 months later,” says Kayla, “so we were used to living off one salary. It was very easy for us to automatically use his income toward paying off student loans.”
While the Hagens were making good strides with their debt repayment by not spending more when their income increased, they realized they needed help with their broader financial plan. “When I first graduated, I remember feeling clueless when it came to personal finance,” says Kayla. “It’s something you don’t learn in school.”
On the recommendation of a co-worker, The Hagens connected with Nicole Holland-Hong, a financial advisor for Northwestern Mutual. “The first thing she asked was whether we had a monthly budget,” says Kayla. She asked if we knew where our money was being spent every month. We didn’t. So, step one was just creating a monthly budget.”
Step two was balancing debt repayment with investing for retirement. “Nicole met with us several times to discuss our goals and the best way to accomplish them,” says Dan. “We created a balance that was right for us in order to pay off our debt quickly while still contributing to our retirement plans.”
“We just wanted to have a clean slate so we could plan our future and not constantly be worrying.”
When they started tracking their spending, they found even more ways to cut back. They were eating out 4 to 5 times a week. It was an easy spot to cut back. They go out once a week now, and cook at home the other nights. “We have found that we really enjoy cooking together,” Kayla says. “We have a real sense of accomplishment whenever we create something that we both enjoy.”
They also cut back in other areas. For instance, they saw how much they were spending on tickets to St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Blues games. “We now go to 1 or 2 games a season,” says Kayla. “We have found that it makes the experience more special and we really look forward to going.”
DISTINGUISHING WANTS FROM NEEDS
They’re also getting better at figuring out what’s really important to them, which has kept them from making impulse buys that can quickly bust a budget. “Whenever we are in a store and we see something we like, we ask ourselves if we want it or need it,” says Dan. “We do splurge sometimes, but it has definitely slowed down our spending.”
Now that they’ve paid off the debt, they are glad for the lessons they learned along the way. “We finally can look at our future and decide where we are headed,” says Kayla. Going forward, Kayla and Dan will have a lot of extra money in their monthly budget. They plan to spend a little more on themselves now (a nice trip is likely in the future, says Kayla). But they have an eye on early retirement and are planning to invest a big chunk of what they’d been spending on monthly loan payments.
Paying off their debt so quickly also had an added benefit they didn’t expect when they started. It also brought them closer as a couple. “Although, it was technically my student loans,” says Dan, “we did this as a team.”